As the nineties wound their way to the end, Disney started to stray farther and farther from the quality animation and scripts that sparked the Disney Renaissance. The last four Disney films of the decade would be a fairly mixed bag, but none of them epitomized the sorry state of affairs better than Hercules. Oh, I find Hercules to be a cute distraction, but it exhibits none of the artistry in the animation department and is essentially a 93-minute ad for children (a frightening trend that’s only ripened into the industry that it is today). Despite crafting a woman who’s probably the strongest leading lady of the Disney franchise, the movie is just a sequence of anachronisms strung together in a smuttier way than anything Aladdin produced.
Hercules recounts the tale of the Greek god kidnapped by the evil Hades (James Woods) and forced to live life as a mortal. Hercules (voiced by Tate Donovan) is determined to go home to Mt. Olympus and enlists the help of a disenchanted satyr (voiced by Danny DeVito) to help him go from “zero to hero.”
How do you know the studio was firmly in charge of this film and not the directors, screenwriters, or animators? Because the original casting suggestion for the Muses, the Greek chorus that sings several of the musical numbers, were the Spice Girls! Yep, because Hercules isn’t dated enough. Oh, the Greek mythology sets in a time long past, but the preponderance of ’90s pop culture jokes (and some jokes go as far back as the ’70s) will confuse children coming into this film today. Every scene is littered with “in-jokes” for children who conveniently can purchase representations of the items being advertised. Hercules wears “Air-Herc’s,” uses a “Grecian Express” and drinks a Hercules inspired drink that’s a play on Gatorade. On top of that, there are pop-culture references to Midnight Cowboy (a film that all children should watch! I kid) and a few others that don’t fit. It all adds up to a film that doesn’t settle on a tone. Yes, it’s a take on Greek mythology, so it’s already fairly pious, but to add in elements taken directly from modern-day and be blatant about it, lessens and confuses the impact of the story.
Compare this to Pocahontas or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where authenticity to a particular time wasn’t perfect (farting gargoyles, anyone?), but the vocal cast and elements were contained to that time period; Pocahontas, especially because you’re dealing with actual history. Hercules doesn’t even have respect for the time period with the vocal cast ranging from nondescript Tate Donovan to gritty Danny Devito. The dialogue is already refusing to adhere to any type of classical speech pattern, so in the end this is a “horrors of fame” story set in a Greek time period.
The vocal cast does fine in a few areas. The highlights are James Woods as Hades and Susan Egan as Meg. Woods takes a page from the Robin Williams playbook as the fast-talking Hades. Hades is probably the last fun villain, and while he doesn’t have a song to sing his one-liners and ability to go from calm to screaming is fun to watch; this is a perfect case of the villain being animated to look like the actor. Of course, Woods does bring up the overabundance of Yiddish words that are apparently taken for Greek. Several sentences end with Yiddish phrases, including an “Oy vey” and it makes you scratch your head. Did the screenwriters think adults would think that funny? Or could they not find any Greek one-liners? Several moments in Hercules feel like they’re meant to be speak to the adults, if the adults needed to be hit with a hammer. My favorite element of the movie though is Pain and Panic (voiced by Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Frewer, respectively). Both men are hilarious comic relief with Goldthwaite giving my favorite line of the film: “Remember, like, a few years ago, every other boy was named Jason, and the girls were all named Brittany?” It’s a modern-day moment that works to the help the film’s confused tongue-in-cheek nature.
As if I haven’t ripped the film apart enough, let’s talk animation for a second. Hercules would go on to have an animated show on Disney, and I have to wonder how far in development that was because the style of animation in the film looks like a Disney television cartoon. It’s too colorful and lacking the detail of past movies. It doesn’t help that the animators went for a look mimicking Greek pottery, so the faces are very sharp and the women appear to have waists that a pinkie could wrap around.
In the end, Hercules was hoped to be a return to “kids fare” after two dark films mired in classic history. Hercules takes classic history and makes it comical by inserting dated, ’90s kid friendly jokes that fall flat because time has passed. Hercules becomes a relic of what the ’90s looked like to kids today. James Woods and the other side characters are good, but the desire to advertise to kids becomes unsettling the more it goes on. I’d say watch it, just don’t expect anything near the quality of the Disney Renaissance.
NEXT WEEK: Disney introduces a new Princess with Mulan!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.